Toward the end,
out on the steps, Ethel sharpened
her paring knives
for hours against the bricks.
Most days she got no farther,
so after school I’d join her,
whoever I was. She’d forgotten.
But she welcomed her sad new friend,
and taught me to disappear
into her scraping, into the cradlesong
her madness sang
to steady her hand’s rhythm, to pare
the grit down smoother. —Year by year,
face by name, depression by war,
child by child by funeral,
she’d made the hard flat tops relax
into little shallow troughs.
Some days they held a teaspoonful
Today a gang of sparrows
came and fluttered themselves clean
of whatever drab manic sorrows
a sparrow has. Then dry again,
the red clay hammocks
undulated a melody
from bar to bar of mortar,
and I don’t know where the knives are.
Each blade already was pared away
to an inch-long silver
wedge, like a pelican’s profile,
or the full-frontal
half smile of a grandmother.
A knife too small for carving
even a Christmas quail,
but perfect for serving
her hiding places’
of secret cake.
One for her,
and all I wanted for me.
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